A rainbow of plastic bags tangled in the roots of a mangrove tree. Beaches littered with a confetti of instant-coffee sachets and IndoMie noodle wrappers. Everywhere, the crunch of discarded plastic cups half-embedded in the sand. For Kelly Bencheghib and her brothers Gary and Sam, often found knee-deep in garbage-clogged rivers, a typical day on Bali looks a lot different to what most visitors see through their Eat, Pray, Love-tinted glasses.
The Paris-born siblings are part of a wave of designers, artists and environmental advocates turning Bali’s copious rubbish into upcycled treasures. Growing up in Bali in the early 2000s, the siblings watched the beach playground near their home in south Bali’s Batu Belig district get filthier with every monsoon season. “So we decided to do something about it,” says Bencheghib. They drummed up friends and local schools for occasional beach clean-ups. “But once we had cleaned an area it would be covered in trash again the next day.” A search for the source led them to Bali’s plastic-choked waterways, the result of the island’s woefully inadequate waste-management infrastructure.
After seven years spent living abroad, Bencheghib returned to Bali to help her brothers grow their former after-school activity into a fully fledged non-profit, Make A Change World. She then co-founded with them Sungai Watch (sungai means “river” in Bahasa Indonesia) – which organises community clean-ups of the island’s rivers and has installed floating trash barriers to prevent waste from reaching the ocean. Some of the group’s events attracted more than 300 volunteers, while social media posts documenting the process have racked up millions of views. “Stranded in lockdowns, a lot of people around the world realised how important it is to cherish your environment,” Bencheghib says.
A grant from the WWF in 2020 helped to kick off its growth to five outposts around the island, where so far more than 950,000 kilos of waste have been sorted, indexed and, when possible, upcycled in-house or shipped off to processing facilities in Java.
But not all rubbish is created equal. Hard-to-recycle and low-value plastics such as shopping bags – which, despite an island-wide ban, still make up almost one third of Sungai Watch’s collected waste – require a more innovative approach. With the help of creative director Michael Russek, Sungai Watch’s soon‑to-launch social-enterprise arm upcycles these plastics into durable furniture and artwork. Marble- and terrazzo-effect plastic sheets are produced using a heat-compressing machine not unlike a waffle iron; it’s a widely adopted technique pioneered by another recycling collective, Precious Plastic. “Being able to turn plastic bags into upcycled homeware is evidence of waste’s hidden value,” Bencheghib says.
Over in Seminyak, Indonesian entrepreneur Ronald Akili, founder of hospitality hub Potato Head, had his watershed moment in 2016, cutting through plastic-littered waves on his daily surf. “Back on the beach the trash was almost up to my knees for as far as I could see,” he says. “From that day, I made the commitment that anything I did in my company would be part of the solution.”
This became Desa Potato Head, a creative village built around Akili’s existing Potato Head beach club and hotel, Potato Head Suites. The beachfront complex, designed by Dutch firm OMA, has repurposed plastic waste embedded in its DNA. Weavers from Jakarta-based design firm BYO Living reworked 1.7 tonnes of compressed PET plastic into Desa’s geometric ceilings, and collaborated with British designer Faye Toogood on a bespoke collection of rattan furniture wrapped in recycled plastic bottles. For the rooms, designer Max Lamb teamed up with artisans from local furniture studio Kalpa Taru to make kaleidoscopic desk chairs and hotel amenities from terrazzo-like sheets of compressed plastic bottles. Spanish designer Andreu Carulla works with Desa’s on-site R&D workshop, producing roly-poly stools from recycled Styrofoam. “We tend to respond better when we’re inspired than when we’re being preached to,” Akili says. “We all want to eat healthier, but our food still needs to be delicious. We all want to make sustainable objects, but they still have to be beautiful.”
Since its launch in 2019, Desa has turned into a springboard and gathering spot for Bali’s plastic-centric people. “We wanted to invite artists, grassroots communities and engineers to share their voices,” Akili says, hoping to make “a place to create solutions to help regenerate Bali.” Among the collaborators is Liina Klauss, a German artist whose piece 5,000 Lost Soles is at the entrance to the beach club. Made from more than 5,000 plastic flip-flops collected over just six beach clean-ups around Bali’s western coast, it’s both beautiful and disquieting. “In contrast to western countries, Bali’s plastic problem is very visible,” Klauss says. “Plastic is a global issue, and its symptoms show up in paradise. It’s this contrast that intrigues me: the intersection where pristine nature meets western consumer culture.”
Last December, the Desa expanded its art collection with Pointman – River Warrior, a 6m-tall sculpture by American artist Leonard Hilton McGurr (also known as Futura2000), made from 888 kilos of plastic waste. The team also worked with Sungai Watch on a smaller sculpture made from compressed plastic bags, currently on display at the National Design Centre in Singapore.
In recent years, more plastic projects have popped up across the island. In Canggu, Bali’s expatriate epicentre, LN-CC co-founder and Potato Head’s former creative director Daniel Mitchell launched Museum of Space Available, a gallery, boutique and circular design workspace. Behind a façade made from more than 200,000 compressed plastic bottles, he sells home decor from recycled plastic “marble” and meditation chairs woven from discarded strapping tape by Balinese master weaver Nano Uhero. “Crafts sit at the very core of Balinese culture,” Mitchell says. “Canang sari, the daily offerings woven from banana leaf, and artisan techniques such as textile weaving and wood carving are a fundamental part of life here. People are incredibly skilful.”
His designs take the waste conversion far beyond Bali’s shores: global ecommerce platform Mr Porter retails Space Available’s marble-like incense holders for £60 a piece, and Mitchell has orchestrated pop-ups at Selfridges and Dover Street Market in Tokyo. A chair made from roughly 6,320 recycled bottle caps, designed in collaboration with South Korean DJ Peggy Gou, is now part of the permanent collection of Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum.
Initiatives such as these have pushed plastic recycling towards the mainstream – and Bali’s recycling-minded businesses are reaping the benefits. Wedoo, the island’s leading producer of plastic-waste-processing machinery, saw its orders increase from 30 machines in 2021 to 50 in the past year. The per-kilo prices of the most in-demand types of sorted and cleaned plastic waste, meanwhile, have increased by up to 70 per cent over the past three years. B2B production workshops such as ëCollabo8, founded in 2019 by eco-entrepreneur Kevin Vignier-Groiez, help meet the increased demand for recycled-plastic furnishing and building materials – wood-like furniture from plastic logs, “marble”-swirled plastic plates and cups – that now adorn hotels such as Meliá Bali and the Grün treehouse collection.
But no amount of recycled-plastic home decor is enough to eradicate Bali’s tidal wave of rubbish. For the island to really clean up its act, change needs to happen at the source. Sungai Watch uses its collected data to lobby Indonesia’s largest polluters (Danone, Unilever and Indonesian FMCG conglomerate Wings Surya among them) for more accountability and alternative materials that will encourage a circular economy. “The idea is not to blame and shame, but to engage in proper conversation to hold these companies accountable,” says Bencheghib. At Space Available, meanwhile, Mitchell is experimenting with biomaterials such as mycelium as a plastic substitute.
“We can see the incremental process,” says Akili, who managed to reduce Potato Head’s trash-to-landfill ratio down from 50 to just five per cent over the past four years. Like the rest of the island’s creative recycling community, he’s hopeful for Bali’s future. “Look at the demand for organic food: you can really notice its progress from a decade ago until now,” he says. “We’re still at the beginning of our rubbish revolution, but the ripple effect is starting to show.”